J.D. Salinger may have only published only one novel, The Catcher in the Rye, but he did write a fair number of short stories*. Salinger’s most famous collection Nine Stories collects short stories that he had published in various publications, including the only magazine he thought mattered, The New Yorker, from 1948-1953. Below are mini-reviews of each of the nine stories.
*Just in case you don’t get to the end of this article, my personal favorites are “The Laughing Man” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”
Seymour Glass spends a day on the beach shooting the breeze with a child he has befriended while his wife, Muriel, talks to her mother on the phone. The seeming ordinariness of the story is catapulted into a harsh new light with the WTF ending. Salinger’s ear for realistic dialogue and vivid characterization is evident in this early venture. “Bananafish” established Salinger as a hot new literary talent.
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”
Eloise and Mary Jane, former classmates who had dropped out from college together, catch up at Eloise’s house, talk and get drunk. Eloise mourns her love for Walt Glass in particular (yes, the Glass family appears again), who died in a freak accident during WWII. Though the common analysis for this story is that Salinger was showing the falseness of the American Dream epitomized by the post-war suburban lifestyle in which Eloise finds herself, this story is also striking for how unsympathetic Eloise first appears yet Salinger manages to humanize her and explain her motivations.
“Just Before the War with the Eskimos”
Ginnie and Selena play tennis together; Ginnie insists Selena pay her half of the cab fare for all the times that she has neglected to do so. Most of the story consists of Ginnie’s odd conversation with Selena’s older brother Franklin. This story has some of the common themes in Salinger’s works - a man-boy who has no direction in life, the lingering effects of WWII, jilted love (Franklin has written letters to Ginnie’s older sister Joan, which she has not returned).
“The Laughing Man”
An unnamed narrator recounts his experiences in an after school athletic club led by a young NYU law student he calls “The Chief,” whom he and the other boys adore. On occasion, the Chief recounts the story of “The Laughing Man”, a Robin Hood-like character who has many picaresque adventures. In real life, the Chief has a relationship with a girl called Mary Hudson, who later comes on as an “assistant coach” and the Laughing Man stories start to reflect the ups and downs of their relationship. This story perfectly captures boys’ tendency to idolize role models as well as the inevitable disillusionment that must follow.
"Down at the Dinghy"
“Boo Boo” Glass Tannenbaum has a meaningful but not super-serious talk with her four-year-old son Lionel (a stand-in for Salinger himself) who has a tendency to run away from confrontation. This story is less cynical about humanity and offers hope even though Lionel is clearly a sensitive child (the latest insult being an anti-Semitic remark made by one of the maids towards Lionel’s father). “Boo Boo” is perhaps one of the few adult females portrayed almost completely sympathetically by Salinger.
“For Esmé - With Love and Squalor”
“Sergeant X” spends a pleasant afternoon talking with precocious 13-year-old Esmé in Devon, England where preparations for D-Day are happening; later, “Sergeant X” is recovering from a nervous breakdown (actually post-traumatic stress disorder) when a long promised letter from Esmé arrives. The story’s impact is lost a little now since back in the immediate post-war era, PTSD was relatively unknown and not researched thoroughly, but this story illustrated it brilliantly in the main character. Also, children as saviors would be a long-running theme in Salinger’s work.
“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”
An old man has a conversation on the phone with his friend; he speaks mostly about his wife in deprecating terms who appears to be in the same room with him as he is speaking. This story seems to imitate and predict Salinger’s own dynamic towards his (much younger) partners; overbearing and egotistical. The story still has well-written dialogue even if it comes off as more cantankerous than clever.
“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”
John Smith teaches at a correspondence art school in Verdun, France where his disastrous interaction with a talented young nun leads him to reevaluate his life and his behavior. “Blue Period” is a very ambitious story that does not quite work, mainly because the epiphanies about art and life that the narrator experiences sound a bit trite. Salinger is also much better at writing brash and witty dialogue rather than the pompous pedantry of John Smith.
A striking story about a child prodigy Teddy who shares insights about meditation and enlightenment like a little spiritual guru with the fascinated Nicholson, a young graduate student. The story’s tragic ending makes a suitably macabre bookend with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Anyone who has read this story will never forget Teddy.